A Candle Speaks

By Ann Van Dyke
This speech was originally given at November's Thanksgiving Eve Interfaith Service

When I was a little girl growing up in a farming community in northern PA, the lighting of the candles on the altar of our little Methodist church said, “Quiet your heart and mind. Worship begins.”

Even as a child I knew a candle’s light was both a comfort and a calling…through the song, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.  Hide it under a bushel, no!  I’m going to let it shine.”  I knew, in that song, candles were saying, “Get out there and love!”

When I was a teenager, I discovered that Catholic congregations used candles in an additional way when I found a bank of candles with the invitation to light one for a specific person.  The lighting of that candle said, “Blessings to this dear one.”

In the 1980s when I became the foster mother of two Buddhist children who were refugees from Vietnam, we often went to a Buddhist pagoda in Lancaster.  The incense and the candles in that holy place said to my foster children, “You are home.”                                                                      

I learned that in the Buddhist faith a candle represents the light of Buddha’s teachings. A white candle represents wisdom, seeing the truth; and a green candle represents compassionate action.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time in India.  I experienced a candle there burning deep in a cave where Hindu holy men have been praying for a thousand years.  That candle said, “Come here and rest.”

While working as a civil rights law investigator for the State, I spent a lot of time trying to help communities know what to do in response to acts of hate.  Often the first thing people knew, almost automatically, to do was to gather and light a candle.  Those candles said to those who had been targeted, “You are not alone.”  And to those who hate, those candles say, “Love is more powerful.”

I’m so stuck by the use of candles in Jewish homes and in synagogues. Like their use before sundown on Friday evenings, when candles are lit to begin Shabbat.  Those candles say, “Remember God’s divine presence.” And at the end of Shabbat, I’ve learned that a special braided candle is lit that says, “Blessings upon the first work of the new week.”   What a lovely blessing. During each night of Hanukkah, my friends who light the Menorah candles tell me that those candles say, “Gather. Remember. Honor. Trust. Persevere. Rejoice.”

The Qur’an tells us that Allah’s light is like a candle, lighting the heavens and earth; a light that God places in our hearts.

Throughout many faith traditions, we light memorial candles.  Those candles say so many things to grieving hearts; I think, beginning with, “Thank you...that this person was in my life.”

My dear neighbor friends are of the Sikh faith.  When they invited me over to celebrate their son’s and daughter’s birthday, that birthday cake was covered with candles, like every birthday cake for every child’s birthday I’ve ever witnessed.  Those candles said to their children, “Thank God, God gave us you.”

My friends who are followers of Meher Baba, always begin their meditation with lighting a candle…a candle that says, “Come, a thousand times, come.”

And so we learn, a candle lit anywhere by anyone, speaks on behalf of the Great I Am and says, “I am here.”